Cultural Affordances of “Emma”, USCIS’s Latina Virtual Assistant


Monday, March 25, 2019, 4:00pm to 5:30pm


Wexner Building, 4th Floor, Room 434, Harvard Kennedy School

Dr. Miriam E. Sweeney (University of Alabama) and Dr. Melissa Villa-Nicholas (University of Rhode Island) join us for a conversation on virtual assistants; and how virtual agents are increasingly integrated as ‘user-friendly’ interfaces for e-government and commercial services. This research investigates the case study of the virtual assistant, ‘Emma’, that is integrated into the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website. This research has implications for how citizen-consumers are made informationally ‘legible’ to the state through their engagement with digital technologies for government services.

This presentation introduces the Emma interface in the context of USCIS services, and explores the cultural affordances of Latina identity as a strategic design choice that extends citizenship and nation-building projects for the state, while masking underlying information and data gathering capabilities.

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Miriam E. Sweeney is an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Studies and the University of Alabama. She conducts critical cultural research in information and digital media studies, particularly focused intersections of race and gender in the design, use and meaning of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Her current projects explore virtual assistants, emoji, and artificial intelligence.

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Melissa Villa-Nicholas is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Rhode Island. She researches the intersections and co-constructions of race, gender, sexuality and information communication technologies (ICTs), the information and technology histories of Latina/os, and intersectional approaches to Library and Information Studies.